U.S. Facebook Traffic Detoured Through China

A sizable amount of network traffic including Facebook surfers was re-routed from an AT&T line in the U.S. through Chinanet. Some believe this was a deliberate rerouting by the Chinese government, which has blocked its citizens from accessing the social network for about two years.

A few days ago, security blogger Barret Lyon noted that a sizable amount of network traffic, including Facebook usage, was re-routed from an AT&T line in the U.S. through Chinanet. Lyon asserted that the re-routing was an accident, but other security experts believe that it was a deliberate re-routing by the Chinese government, which has blocked its citizens from accessing Facebook for several years.

“It’s real. It is happening. It can’t be described as an ‘accident’ anymore,” Rodney Joffe, senior technologist at Domain Name Registrar Neustar, who observed similar traffic snafus involving China last year, said in an e-mail to CNET.

As Lyon had noted in his original post, anyone who viewed Facebook traffic through the link-up without encryption was subject to having their data viewable by operators at Chinanet.

China doesn’t have the best track record for Internet security – – indeed, the country has been more inclined to censor the Internet than any other nation. Free speech activists have worries about how the country can use its online access to snoop on the private data transmission of its own citizens, but what the country would want with U.S. citizens’ data is unclear.

As Lyon wrote, “China is well known for its harmful networking practices by limiting network functionality and spying on its users, and when your data is flowing over their network, your data could be treated as any Chinese citizens’. Does that include capturing your session ID information, personal information, emails, photos, chat conversations, mappings to your friends and family, etc? One could only speculate, however it’s possible.”

Lyon wondered why neither AT&T nor Facebook informed customers of the re-routing, and wondered further why Facebook has not yet enabled SSL encryption across the board through browsers. As he pointed out, the Internet is not a consistently trusted network insofar as security is concerned. But he also wondered why high-profile sites like Facebook would be able to have their traffic routed through another country.

“I prefer to know that when I am on AT&T’s network, going to U.S.-located sites, my packets are not accidentally leaving the country and being subject to another nation’s policies,” he said.

It seems hypocritical for the Chinese government to block its citizens from accessing Facebook, only to peruse the site vicariously through the activities of Americans. And any detouring U.S. traffic all the way to China may have noticeably slowed down the site’s performance — reopening the question of why the company didn’t tell users about the incident.

We wonder about the likelihood that the whole thing was a hoax or a clever ploy by hackers who actually had nothing to do with the Chinese government. Readers, what do you think caused Facebook traffic to detour through China, assuming it really happened?